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William Slocomb Groesbeck

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Thrust into the national spotlight by the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, defense attorney William Slocomb Groesbeck won wide renown for his stirring defense of the president. Prior to the trial, Groesbeck was known chiefly for his law practice in Ohio and for a single term in Congress. His friendship with Johnson led to his last-minute substitution on the president's defense team. Delivered while he was ill, Groesbeck's closing argument is remembered for its brilliance and passion.

Groesbeck was born July 24, 1815, in Schenectady, New York, and studied law at Miami University, in Ohio. After graduating in 1834, he began practicing at the age of 19 in Cincinnati. As a liberal Republican, he served in Congress from 1857 to 1859, but then lost his bid for reelection. He remained active in party politics as a leader of the Union Democrats, served as a delegate at the fruitless peace convention in 1861 that sought to prevent the Civil War, and won election as a senator in the Ohio state legislature in 1862.

Groesbeck befriended Johnson during the war and became a natural choice for defending Johnson during his 1868 impeachment trial. Johnson trusted and respected the younger man. He had even briefly considered ousting treasury secretary Hugh McCulloch and giving McCulloch's job to Groesbeck. When the distinguished lawyer jeremiah sullivan black resigned from Johnson's impeachment defense team amid scandal, Johnson turned to Groesbeck.

Like the rest of Johnson's defense team, Groesbeck served without a fee. The task facing the attorneys was immense. After assuming the presidency in 1865 following Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Johnson had embarked on a moderate, slow-paced policy of reform. The bitter politics of the Reconstruction era, however, had sapped both his popularity and his power. Radical Republicans in Congress overruled his policies and, in 1867, with the stage set for a dramatic confrontation, they established the tenure of office act (14 Stat. 430) over his veto. This law severely limited executive power. It required the president to ask the Senate for permission before removing any federal official whose appointment the Senate had approved, and it also provided that presidential cabinet members would serve one month past the expiration of the president's term.

In August 1867, Johnson rejected the authority of the act when he requested the removal of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, on the ground that Stanton had secretly conspired with Johnson's political enemies. Stanton refused to step down, so Johnson removed him from office and replaced him with Ulysses S. Grant. The Radical Republicans swiftly sought revenge. Three days later, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson, making him the first president in U.S. history to stand trial on impeachment charges. The U.S. Senate then adopted 11 articles of impeachment, the most serious of which was violation of the Tenure of Office Act.

Groesbeck played a key role in trial preparation. Like his colleagues, he advised Johnson not to appear at trial—a recommendation the president followed. Groesbeck remained silent in the Senate until all the evidence had been presented, and on April 25 he delivered the second closing argument. (Because there was no precedent for an impeachment trial of a president, the Senate allowed several defense attorneys to present closing arguments.)

Groesbeck's speech was a masterpiece of simplicity and eloquence. He noted that there had only been five impeachment trials since the organization of the government, and urged the Senate to leave political judgments to the citizenry. Despite suffering from an illness, he deftly countered each of the 11 charges.

When Groesbeck addressed the Tenure of Office Act, he turned the tables on the Senate. He argued that the Senate had always had the power to deal with Stanton's dismissal and replacement without resorting to impeachment. What Johnson had done, argued Groesbeck, was simply to remove a member of the cabinet who had been unfriendly to him, both personally and politically. Johnson had made an ad interim (temporary) appointment to last for a single day, an appointment the Senate could have terminated whenever it saw fit. The Senate, argued Groesbeck, possessed the power to control the situation all along. Surely, in light of this, Johnson's act was no crime.

Groesbeck continued with a peroration comparing Johnson to Lincoln and even invoking Christ's crucifixion. Then he praised Johnson's contribution to the nation in time of war: "How his voice rang out in this hall for the good cause, and in denunciation of rebellion. But he … was wanted for greater peril, and went into the very furnace of the war … Who of you have done more? Not one."

The speech stunned the Senate. Supporters surrounded Groesbeck. His argument was praised in the national press, with the New York Herald calling it "the most eloquent … heard in the Senate since the palmy days of oratory" (as quoted in Bowers 1929, 189). Likewise, the Nation regarded it as the defense's most effective moment. Johnson, too, was deeply pleased, and Groesbeck assured him that he would be acquitted. When the Senate voted on May 16 and May 26, Johnson escaped impeachment by a margin of one vote.

Following the trial, Groesbeck's political fortunes briefly soared. In 1872, he was nominated for the presidency by liberal Republicans but failed to garner enough support. He died on July 7, 1897, in Cincinnati.

Further Readings

Bowers, Claude G. 1929. The Tragic Era. New York: Blue Ribbon Books.

Castel, Albert. 1980. The Presidency of Andrew Johnson. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas.

Dewitt, David M. 1903. The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: Macmillan.

Milton, George F. 1930. The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals. New York: Coward-McCann.

Stryker, Lloyd P. 1936. Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage. New York: Macmillan.

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